Program Management

Online Programs: How Important Are They Really? | CEO Keys

02/22/16   |  
Steve Fireng

The Online Learning Consortium recently published its Online Report Card, which tracks a multiyear trend in online enrollment growth. Conversely, the report quoted a 2015 Babson survey that found more than one in four academic leaders still say online program outcomes are inferior to ground. While we have made so much progress with online learning, some still do not believe or have not experienced what is possible.

I am a strong believer in and proponent of online programs and have been leading online learning companies for more than 15 years. I have seen firsthand that online outcomes can be just as good, if not better, than ground. This, of course, is my personal experience and opinion, but I find myself asking, “Why do almost 29 percent (up from 26 percent in 2014) of academic leaders disagree? Did they have a bad experience? Have they only taught ground courses and prefer the face-to-face interactions they bring?” One of the reasons may be a lack of understanding or knowledge about online learning best practices.

Online programs require a unique and specific approach to be successful. Simply creating a replica of a ground course and making it available online won’t work. I discussed this issue with Nancy Coleman, Ed.D., Keypath Education’s vice president of academic services, and someone who has been revolutionizing online outcomes for more than 10 years. Prior to joining Keypath, she was the director of distance education for Boston University and pioneered award-winning, fully online degree programs. We created a short checklist of best practices to ensure online outcome success:

  1. Use technology to enable students to interact with the content, each other, the instructor and their advisor.
  2. Have a clear roadmap and instructions for students, leading them to see how they will complete the course successfully.
  3. Engage students through heavy faculty/instructor interaction and timely feedback.
  4. Break down content into short, digestible pieces of material (no long lectures videos, etc.).
  5. Integrate assessments throughout the course that enable students to check their mastery of skills consistently, starting during the first week of the course.

These best practices are straightforward, but it is surprising how many institutions do not follow them. Having worked with hundreds of online programs, I can attest to the impact these practices can have on outcomes.

I am shocked that despite so much progress with online learning, technology and acceptance from students, we still have folks who disagree with online program quality. It’s important to remember that not all online programs are created equal. According to the latest IPEDS data, online program offerings continue to outpace enrollment. Institutions need to take inventory of their strengths and evaluate their program portfolio to know which programs will be the right fit.

I don’t ever expect to see 100 percent acceptance from academic leaders and administration, but I hope that as we continue to partner with institutions to build online courses that delight students and faculty, they will see the real value online programs deliver. Should anyone want to discuss these thoughts, our best practices or how we are helping schools today, email me at